At play with Madiba

2011-05-13 09:16

As soon as artist Beezy Bailey becomes aware of my presence, his face lights up with a grin. I meet him at the Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank, where his latest show is on.

It’s a collection of new paintings and prints titled Icon Iconoclast. Here, the artist tries to come to terms with his personal meaning of the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the icon.

As we head on to the roof of neighbouring Circa, where our interview unfolds, I can’t help but notice Bailey’s playfulness. He wears a blue fedora, brown cargo pants, silver sneakers and a technicoloured shirt. This is a man with a cool capacity for humour.

In fact, as soon as we are seated, Bailey complains that a lot of artworks don’t make space for humour.

As for this exhibition of his, he’s quick to point out that it’s made up of three kinds of works.

“There are the landscapes, which are based on photographs I took in Namibia, inspired by Walter Meyer the painter, then the more abstract paintings. Plus what I call the typical Beezy painting, which takes place on some type of abstract landscapes with surrealistic figures,” he explains.

These paintings were then silkscreen-printed with the iconic Mandela images.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this work is that, for the first time, Bailey is collaborating with his alter ego, Joyce Ntobe. He created her 20 years ago as “a political strategy to protest against affirmative action in visual arts”.

Her works are very different from Bailey’s. They are slightly more figurative and can easily be described as “township art”. In fact, the hoax worked and famously, Ntobe’s work was put into the National Gallery’s collection.

The piece titled Ghost Boxer, which has an image of Nelson Mandela, the boxer, superimposed onto the image of a house in the Karoo, is exemplary here.

Apart from its political expediency, the idea of an alter ego should be expected from one as playful with his art as Bailey.
His relationship with Ntobe is much like that of a child with his imaginary friend.

But the artist is ambivalent on joking about his imaginary partner. He remembers that the collaboration was actually suggested by his psychologist. He says: “I was literally sitting and talking to a shrink a couple of years ago who said ‘wouldn’t it be nice to work with Joyce Ntobe one day?’ so now it’s happening.”

Bailey is grateful for his feminine side too. He says he was suddenly “able to do work that Beezy wouldn’t otherwise dream of doing. So she almost released me from myself and I was able to do things I couldn’t.”

But Bailey adds that working with her has its own perils.

“I’m a bit wary of collaborating with Joyce because I don’t want to cancel her out,” he says.

Other collaborators for this exhibition are photographers Bob Gosani and Benny Gool, whose images he has used as silkscreens here. The iconic image of Madiba as a young boxer, and the image of an old statesman as grandfather with a blind boy touching his face, are perhaps the most charged of the lot.

Bailey has encountered Mandela in his art before. He was one of the artists approached along with Marlene Dumas and William Kentridge to collaborate with Madiba to create art for charity in 2006. This is what became the “Mandela art controversy that soiled Madiba’s relationship with art”.

But for now, there’s no controversy to speak of and his collaboration is working. And in true Mandela spirit, the white male artist is holding hands with his black female alter ego.

Though the theme is precarious because, as the artist puts it: “Mandela made it very clear that he doesn’t want to be an icon. That he doesn’t want to be a god.”

Perhaps, then, the most apt image is, as Bailey recalls, the Zapiro cartoon reference in the exhibition catalogue. It depicts Madiba on the eve of retirement from public life with a speech bubble that reads Icon? Aikona!

» Icon Iconoclast: A Nelson Mandela Exhibition is on until June 5 at the Everard Read Gallery on Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank, Joburg

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